FILM REVIEW: "The Old Man and the Gun" - 16mm Film with a Rose Tint
Advertised as Robert Redford’s final performance, The Old Man and the Gun follows the ‘mostly true’ story of Forest Tucker, an aging bank robber and career criminal. Redford is front and centre as Tucker, whose elderly crew were dubbed the ‘over-the-hill gang’ by the local police and media after a spree of robberies in the early 80’s, and he shines as a charismatic, suave and endearing ne’r-do-well whose own victims can’t help but be oddly charmed during his soft-spoken day-light robberies.
Opposite Redford, Casey Affleck plays John Hunt, the overworked but well-intentioned detective pursuing Tucker. Hunt provides a compelling foil to Tucker’s its-good-to-be-bad bravado with the kind of understated performance Affleck has become known for.
Hunt and his wife Maureen (Tika Sumpter) have an impressively intimate on-screen relationship that feels sincere and authentic. It’s of small note, given the little screen-time the two actors get, but I’ve never seen an early morning cuddle or a post work nuzzle depicted this well on film.
Hunt and Maureen’s nuanced physicality contrast nicely with Tucker’s restrained but tender relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). The latter couple has a sweet companionship with flashes of genuine romance, but Tucker’s occupation and resulting secrecy inevitably creates distance between the two. It is implied, however, that Tucker is torn between his love for Jewel and his love of the heist.
The film’s most striking and, perhaps, most successful artistic venture is the use of 16mm film to the enhance its 1980’s aesthetic. The characters are constantly bathed in the warm, grainy oranges, browns and navy blues associated with the era. The director, David Lowery, compounds this by employing lingering zooms, on-screen text and transitional wipes which further the idea that this film is not just trying to accurately depict the era, but is an artefact of the 80’s. The soundtrack buries continuous gems from the decade amidst a jazz score which is as calm and meticulous as Tucker himself and scenes occasionally halt altogether to focus on a contemporaneous news broadcast. Sometimes, the film even dwells comically upon the inept recording technology of the time – perhaps a nod to the filmmakers’ own struggles with 16mm.
This obsession with granular details does occasionally slow the pace of the film, but this slower pace befits its central character. Tucker is never one to rush, even politely asking a bank manager, ‘How’s your day going?’ halfway through robbing him. The film itself is similarly uninterested in taking your money and dashing out the door; there is always time to do things right and with a little, old-fashioned charm.
The Old Man and the Gun is gorgeous to look at, but there is more going on beneath its flawless 80’s veneer. As the advertising push is only too eager to remind you, this is slated to be Robert Redford’s final performance and the film seems dedicated to playing out his swan song. Photos of Redford as a younger man and even scenes from his filmography are used to erode the line between Tucker and Redford. It reminds us both why the gentleman thief has been such a mainstay in Hollywood film making and how truly perfect Redford is at playing him. Every detail and line in this film is perfectly positioned, even Redford’s wrinkles, and the themes of aging and retirement are as much a part of his story as Tucker’s.
The seamless dialogue between Redford and Tucker’s careers isn’t without drawbacks, though. The film is so intent on immersing the audience in Redford’s charms that it loses sight of any real complexity. The movie touts itself as a biopic of Forrest Tucker, but seems so intent on highlighting Redford‘s rendition of Tucker that that the man himself all but vanishes. It’s unclear whose story we’re truly watching here.
The film does flirt with complexity. In one scene, Tucker’s estranged daughter explains that ‘He would always say he’d stop but then he just kept on doing it again and again and again, […]he deserves to be locked up’. In another, Tucker frightens a mother and child while stealing their car. In these moments, we glimpse a man in a desperate (but self-imposed) situation where charm and cheek will not redeem him. But a witty line or sly smile from Redford always seems to do just that. The extent to which the gentleman thief exists beyond the media spin is never truly tested because the film is too intent on reliving the glamour of that time - and the glamour of Redford himself. He makes it all look pretty damn cool - but is that really what we’re supposed to believe?
Despite these blemishes, The Old Man and the Gun is a wonderfully indulgent piece of nostalgic filmmaking. It reminds the audience of why Redford is the star he is, recalling the devilish charm of the movies that put him there in the first place. A better final bow for Redford’s career (if this is truly to be his final bow) would be hard to find.
3.5 / 5
Header image: Fox Searchlight